Blog post,  Communications professional,  Leadership

Managing a difficult staff member

As a manager at some point, you will have to deal with a difficult staff member. This could be for a range of reasons – bad behaviour, under-performance, the wrong attitude. Not everyone is a lost cause, and in my experience, often it is how you handle the situation as a manager that can make all of the difference.

Having a disruptive staff member can really undermine the performance of a team, and can lead to a lack of delivery from the individual. There is a scale of issues and some of them will require a lot of time and energy to resolve.

The normal human reaction to conflict is fight or flight, but neither works when facing a staffing problem. You have to see this person every day. You may not know what the real issue is. You never really know what is happening with a person and what else could be going on. There is a chance it could be you.

So, going in all guns blazing is not going to solve the problem, neither will running the other way and ignoring it. You need to be the leader here and deal with this problem.

You have HR experts that will provide you with advice on how to handle specific situations, but I wanted to share some of my insights from over a decade of managing teams. A lot of these ideas came from other mentors or managers I really respected over the years.

  • Walk away: If you are going to write a grumpy email (we all have to do it at some point) write it and walk away. The same goes for a conversation that is escalating, walk away. Come back to it the next day (if time allows) when you have calmed down, it’s a different day and some of the heat will be taken out of the situation. You may find you make some significant edits or take a completely different approach to the conversation. Just don’t feel like you have to deal with conflict in the heat of the moment.
  • Write it down: Are you about to go into a difficult conversation? Is it time for performance feedback and you don’t think it will go well? Or you have had a bad report from a client that you need to address? Write an email of how you think the conversation will go and the points you want to make. Print it out and use it as your script. When you walk out of the meeting, review the email, update it to reflect what actually happened. Then send it as a record of the conversation to the other person. It keeps you on track during the conversation, particularly if you are nervous. You will also have a formal record immediately post the conversation.
  • Keep a “little black book”: A mentor a few years ago gave me this advice when I was managing a difficult employee. Have a “little black book” that you keep confidential staffing information in. This is not your normal notebook nor is it the addresses of all of the people you have dated. This is a notebook you can take to difficult conversations with your staff where you note down important points, dates, times etc. It’s the sad truth but one day you may need this record, I have.
  • Have an honest conversation: This is the key. To manage staff well, you have to be willing to have an honest conversation. It is going to be hard. There may well be tears, yelling, huffing and puffing. But you are a manager, and this is part of it. You have to be willing to ask the hard questions – What is going on? What is really the problem? How can I help? You need to be willing to say ‘this isn’t working how can we fix it’? If you can’t have the hard conversations nothing will change. You need to call bad behaviour, set clear expectations and ask for change. If you don’t you will continue to have a difficult staff member.

I feel a little bit like I am giving away my trade secrets and now any staff I ever have will be terrified if I walk in with a black book or if I walk away from a conversation asking to ‘pick it up tomorrow’, but these concepts changed the way that I managed my staff.

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